Ora Et Labora
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freedom of speech inside the prison

What line was crossed when Amazon Web Services removed Parler from their servers, after stating that Parler had demonstrated an inability to police content on its platform that incited violence?

I want to offer a few reflections, and what I believe social media censorship does and doesn’t represent. I care deeply about free speech, and also about digital technology as a medium for communicating that speech. I also care deeply about the polarization in our society and rifts between people that I daily see, rifts that I believe result from sloppy, wild, generalized language. So I don’t want to write an article about how “western civilization is crumbling and it’s all their fault.” It doesn’t mean that western civilization isn’t crumbling (or, perhaps, crumbled years ago, and is already lying beneath several layers of dirt), and that this unfortunate set of circumstances can’t be attributed to the actions and words of certain people throughout history, but swing about with generalizations and you’re bound to hit a few fine corinthian columns along with the barbarians. So I don’t want to attribute the actions of Amazon and Twitter to a particular political party, however much I think the issue of free speech is a political one. I want to make a point about how we users behave, and how we got here.

In theory, Amazon removed Parler from its servers because Parler demonstrated an inability to keep people from “inciting violence” on its platform, a platform that utilized Amazon hardware to spread its message. This raises a few interesting questions about the nature of “incitement.” Incitement of violence — not the reporting, nor the actual commission, of violence — was the stated reason for Parler’s removal. And Parler did not do the inciting — people on its platform did. When Amazon removed Parler, then, there are a few possible reasons that might come to mind, assuming of course that it was speaking in good faith about why it did so (and of course, I have no reason to believe it was in fact speaking in good faith, but that is a matter for another time): firstly, that Amazon considered that standing by while Parler stood by while yet others incited yet others to commit what it, Amazon, considered to be morally reprehensible actions. This is quite a few layers of moral indirection, but it is at least similar to the idea that “the only thing required for evil to triumph is for a good man to do nothing.” On its face, I find nothing objectionable about this, and so will pass on. Secondly, perhaps because Amazon found the actions taken at the capital to be morally reprehensible, as should we all, and because they felt that they were in a position to do something about it, they banned what they believed to be a significant player in the rise of the far-right. Briefly put, perhaps they banned Parler either because they thought that they themselves were implicated in the actions of Parler’s users because they happened over Amazon’s network, or perhaps they banned Paler because, whether they thought themselves implicated or not, they chose to remove from the world a force which they believed to be evil.

Of course I happen to think that Amazon did neither of these things, and that they banned Parler in order to cozy up to the political party which had recently won a major election in a world superpower, and thus acted for exactly the same reasons for which Blizzard acted when they banned a player from their game for criticizing China. But that’s not the point — the point is the principle of the thing, because it’s the principle of the thing that we use when we make laws.

Both of the reasons that I listed above are, I would argue, entirely legitimate. Amazon owns hardware, and they contract with other companies who rent that hardware. If they then choose to end that contract because they do not agree with how those companies are using their hardware, then they should have every right to do so. While I am neither privy nor knowledgable about the contract which Parler actually signed with Amazon, on its face I would hope that we can agree that Amazon’s right of choice over how to use its own hardware extends fairly easily from our notion of property rights.

And this brings up the principal point which I would like to address here: property rights. Social media companies have built their empire on a false promise, the promise that they are simply providing ground for you to build on. They are selling fake property rights, pointing off at some ground and telling you to build your house on it, to grow food there, to stake your livelihood on it, when in fact the entire thing is just an optical illusion and you’re living on a pancake held up by a turtle paid off by impersonal interests living thousands of miles away from your and your neighbors.

This doesn’t make people at social media companies evil. It doesn’t make Amazon wrong (remember, in principle, not in reality). Maybe there’s a hidden agenda behind it all, maybe there’s not; I’m arguing that it doesn’t matter. The real problem is that you think you own a house but you’ve been living in Mark Zuckerberg’s basement all along. Is a big deal when he kicks you out? Maybe, because you’re now cold and starving and digging around in the garbage bins outside McDonalds, but it’s not your rights that have been threatened, just your comfort. It’s not censorship and free speech that’s fundamentally at issue, it’s property.

Free speech isn’t being threatened by Twitter now. Free speech was threatened when we created a Twitter account without reading the terms and conditions, and thought of our profile as a piece of our property. Free speech was threatened when we started building all our digital infrastructure on only a few companies. Free speech was threatened when we believed the marketing propaganda and thought that social media was about expressing ourselves on other people’s hardware.

Our speech isn’t free because we locked it up and threw away the key. Prisons aren’t free speech zones, and Amazon servers aren’t either.

I don’t have any glib solution to this problem. I don’t have any answers but I hope I’m asking the right questions, and I hope you’ll ask them with me. I think that owning your own hardware is important. I think that open-source, free software is important. I think that having intellectual and physical ownership over what you do is important, which is why we should do less things with computers, and more of what we do should be built ourselves.

Ownership — physical and intellectual — matters more than we realize. We’ve built an entire society on delegating nearly every requirement for life, including speech, to others, and now we must reap the consequences. I don’t know what a solution looks like, especially because I’m a software developer by trade. It’s easy to for me to advocate for open source software, and managing your own hardware. I worked on a bootloader for x86 architectures over Christmas. I study operating system and compiler development in my spare time. I write a lot of my own tools, because I enjoy it. I built this website. I’m working on setting up on my own server infrastructure in my basement, once I own it. I build my own computers from parts. I use Arch Linux. None of these things are causes to boast, or make me special — any intelligent person who finds these sorts of things interesting and spends enough time on self-education can easily do the same. But at the same time, many people don’t enjoy this, and it’s not feasible for them to take this kind of control over their technology.

I’m also kind of a hypocrite because I have a Twitter account and I watch a lot of Youtube. I want to stop but I don’t because Mark Zuckerberg’s basement has a big TV and heated floors and surely the whole McDonalds’s dumpsters business won’t happen to little old me after all.

I’ll keep reading and writing about this, and perhaps I will become wiser.

Ora Et Labora

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